In this painting, Holbein combined Erasmus’s portrait with his emblem, providing Terminus with Erasmus’s facial features. Seen through a stone opening, Erasmus/Terminus gazes across a featureless landscape. The golden disk behind his head represents divine radiance, underscoring the Christian meaning of the emblem for Erasmus: steadfast character and unwavering faith. This rare painting of a personal emblem by Holbein was probably intended to delight an admirer rather than to gratify Erasmus himself.
Terminus appears repeatedly in images associated with Erasmus. The deity, depicted as a bust emerging from a stone pillar, was venerated by ancient Romans as a protector of boundaries and frontiers. In Christian thought, Terminus was associated with the boundary between life and death.
For his personal emblem, Erasmus combined the iconography of the Terminus with the motto “concede nulli”—meaning I concede, or yield, to no one. Some of his contemporaries interpreted it as an expression of superiority and accused the scholar of intellectual and moral arrogance. Nevertheless, the image attained great renown and could even serve as the celebrated humanist’s visual surrogate. It was disseminated across Europe through prints, medals, and paintings, such as this exquisite roundel. Although Erasmus worked closely with Holbein and commissioned a number of works directly from the artist, the patron of this panel was most likely not the scholar himself but one of his many admirers.
The Cleveland Museum of Art